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Finishing the Job in Afghanistan?; Taxing Cosmetic Surgery

Aired November 24, 2009 - 22:00   ET


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama says he will finish the job in Afghanistan: more troops, more money, and a new focus. Yet, even the best possible outcome here might not resemble victory as America knows it.

Also tonight, nip and tax -- taxing cosmetic surgery to help finance health insurance, sound like a good plan? Well, maybe not after you find out who is really affected here and what happened when one state actually tried this. We're grilling doctors and lawmakers tonight, "Keeping Them Honest."

Plus, the Republican Party's 10 new commandments, it's a purity test. So, how many Republicans would pass? Would Ronald Reagan even make the grade? We have got the answers and the "Raw Politics" ahead tonight.

First up, President Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Three months after his commander, General Stanley McChrystal, called for additional forces and more than eight years after the war began, the outlines are now coming into focus.

Reportedly, as many as 34,000 additional troops will be sent. That's on top of 20,000 the president sent in March. And it would push force levels there above the 100,000 mark -- the new strategy evolving out of nine top-level White House meetings in consultation with former commanders, including General Colin Powell, who, along with more than 300 others, is spending the evening in a massive tent on the White House's South Lawn.

The president and Mrs. Obama, of course, are hosting the first state dinner of this administration, their guest, the prime minister of India, which, along with Pakistan is a vital player in the Afghan conflict.

We will have more on the dinner shortly and what the president said tonight, but, first, what he said about Afghanistan earlier today.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After eight years, some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done, it is my intention to finish the job.

And I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, that they will be supportive.


HILL: Now, the president will make his case to the country one week from tonight. Already, though, new polling shows Americans are sharply divided -- a number of Democratic lawmakers objecting to spending more dollars and more lives on Afghanistan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaving the door open to a war surtax to cover the cost, which could hit $1 trillion over 10 years.

And on top of all that, there simply aren't any guarantees on any of this. So says our panel, CNN's Fareed Zakaria, who we should mention is also attending the state dinner tonight. Also with us, CNN international correspondent Michael Ware, and Fareed, Atia Abawi.


HILL: Fareed, we heard the president say he intends to -- quote -- "finish the job" in Afghanistan, words which were obviously chosen for a reason. Do his actions back them up?


I think that the president has brought a commendable kind of focus on Afghanistan. And the focus has broadened to include the central role that Pakistan plays. They're trying to figure out what it is they need to do, how do they get an Afghan partner. That is the government of Hamid Karzai.

But the crucial question of whether or not more troops is going to bring some kind of magical stability to these areas, or whether that will producer a certain kind of exacerbation of the conflict, when you bring troops into areas, mountainous areas, tribal areas, where people don't want outsiders, I think remains somewhat unclear.

I think that he's going to do more than just a few words to convince most people.

HILL: And obviously going to need to see what happens when those troops are sent in.

Michael, CNN has learned that president will likely send 34,000 additional troops, which is slightly below the 40,000 requested by General McChrystal. Is that enough to, as the president put it today, ensure that al Qaeda and its extremist allies cannot operate in the region?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it depends how they're used.

I mean, you're not going to win the war. And you're not going to defeat the Taliban. And, indeed I'm sure that's not the aim. The aim is to hurt them. Right now, the Taliban machinery is virtually untouched. They're able to recruit, train, deploy, supply, and engage fighters at their will. And there's no shortage of them. But using extra troops to try and put pressure on the Taliban, to at least force them to a negotiating position, I think, is the ultimate objective. And it depends how they're used.

And you use them with local forces, not just this paper tiger, which is the Afghan army. But you need the tribe leaders. You need the old warlords, the veterans of the Soviet war. You need to bring these people in, because, once you get them onside, a local boss, when he says there will be no Taliban in my district, there will be no Taliban in that district.

HILL: Which, as we have learned, of course, is easier said than done.

So, Atia, when we talk about the sentiment on the ground regarding this troop buildup, do the Afghan people, A, want it? And they -- do they see it as something that will help, perhaps, move their government along? And -- and do they have faith the government will rise to the occasion here and eventually set the country on the right course?

ATIA ABAWI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, it really depends on who you talk to, because, when you talk to the Afghan people, it changes from province to province, from village to village, district to district.

Many Afghans do believe, if the troops are brought in, they should be brought in for the right reason. And that is to help build a society, build their country.

When you talk to the average Afghans throughout the country, which we have been doing from provinces, they will tell you that their number-one issue isn't necessarily security. It is actually poverty. They say, help bring them jobs, and that you will help Afghanistan stabilize. And it's not necessarily just about defeating the Taliban.

It's helping their government, because, right now, the majority of the Afghan people do not trust the Afghan government. They see it as a reason to move to the Taliban right now, go towards them. And the Taliban are using that to their advantage. They're using the propaganda to push the Afghan people away from the coalition efforts, away from the Afghan government by pointing at the corruption.

HILL: Well, and there's also a lot of talk about how the American people, of course, are reading this and how they feel about it.

Fareed, two CNN/Opinion Research polls released today, the first one showing 52 percent of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan, 45 percent support it. But when they were asked what they thought about the president sending 34,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, they're basically split here.

And, as we know, presidencies can be made or broken by decisions when public opinion is divided like this. How much does President Obama, Fareed, have riding on this decision?

ZAKARIA: Well, I think he has a lot riding strategically. I don't think he should make the decision by reading public opinion polls.

I also think the polls, as you say, suggest the American people are sort of split down the middle, which means that it is all up to the administration and up to President Obama to articulate a strategy.

And, if it is successful, you will find that the public will go along with him. I think what the public is worried about and is ambivalent about is whether or not we have a coherent strategy, whether we understand what we're getting ourselves in for.

I think, as long as we were doing something, and it seemed, broadly speaking, successful, they would comfortable with keeping a bunch of -- you know, a lot of troops in there; 30,000 or 40,000 more troops wouldn't be a problem. The real question is the strategy, not the number of troops.

HILL: And the president, as we heard earlier today, said that, when the American people hear his reasons for doing this, that they will perhaps be behind the surge more. So, we will be interested to see what happens with that.

Stay with us, Fareed Zakaria, Michael Ware, and Atia Abawi. We are not done with this discussion yet.


HILL: We also want to know what you think. Join the discussion now. The live chat is under way at I just logged on. I will be back in there in just a second.

And when we return here on the program: India's 9/11, one year ago this week, the terror attacks on Mumbai -- tonight, the terror as it has never been seen or heard before, including perhaps the most chilling phone conversation you will ever hear, the actual conversation between a terrorist and his commander, all of it captured in a new HBO documentary.

Also ahead, on a much lighter note, India's prime minister tonight the guest of honor at the first state dinner for the Obama White House.


B. OBAMA: The most beautiful things in the universe are the starry heavens above us and the feeling of duty within us.

Mr. Prime Minister, today, we work to fulfill our duty and bring our countries closer together than ever before.



HILL: President Obama tonight hosting the first state dinner of his presidency, his guest, India's prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, one superpower, one rising power, each with very powerful interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and each coping with the consequences, including terrorism.

One year ago this week, Mumbai, India's largest city, was targeted in a string of coordinated and deadly terror attacks. The killers targeted hotels, transportation, and Mumbai's Jewish community. The story is told in a new HBO documentary, "Terror in Mumbai," which airs tomorrow and throughout the year.

In one especially heart-wrenching moment recounting the slaughter at a Jewish center, you hear the actual cell phone conversation between a terrorist in Mumbai and his boss in Pakistan, who has already given the order to kill.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What, shoot them?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Do it. Sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head.


HILL: Again, from the HBO documentary "Terror in Mumbai."

Back now with our panel and "Digging Deeper," Fareed Zakaria, Michael Ware, and Atia Abawi.

Fareed, this really was India's 9/11. And you say the terrorist organization behind it, the LET, was actually created by Pakistan. And there is sort of a tacit agreement between the LET and the Pakistani government to keep it operating, which obviously puts the U.S. in a very tough position. I know you wrote about it in "Newsweek" this week.

ZAKARIA: It is the central problem with the Afghanistan strategy and with the AfPak problem, if you will, which is that the -- the goals of Pakistan are not the same as the goals of the United States.

Pakistan wants an Afghanistan that is pliable, which means that they have -- they have supported the Afghan Taliban, and they have supported the Taliban to keep Afghanistan on edge, to give them what they call strategic depth.

Now, we need the Pakistanis to cooperate with us. We need them to get tougher on terrorism. And, yet, they don't see their interests as exactly the same. How you square the circle, you know, how you support the Pakistani government and try to get the Pakistani army to do something that, deep down, they don't believe is in their national interests is really in many ways the central problem in -- in the Afghanistan area.

HILL: Michael, despite what is currently happening in western Pakistan against the Taliban, since 2001, Pakistan's main focus, which Fareed alluded to, has always been on its eastern border with India.

So, can there ever be full cooperation from Afghanistan when we're talking about this fight?

WARE: This is what America needs to understand, that U.S. troops are bleeding and dying in Afghanistan over less to do with jihad, far less to do with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and almost everything to do with Pakistani and Indian rivalry.

Afghanistan is just another battlefield where that competition is being fought out. And it's in neither side's interest to help America, who is caught in the middle right now. So, it's about making Pakistan feel secure about its national interests. It's getting India to feel secure about its national interests while at the same time somehow furthering America's interests. It's a very complex mix, Erica.

HILL: And so much of it is being played out in Afghanistan.

Atia, are any of the actions that are happening, then, specifically in places like southern Waziristan, being taken seriously in Afghanistan?

ABAWI: Well, the situation in Afghanistan, when you talk about Pakistan and India, the Afghan people, the troops on the ground, they know it is a big issue. They know that it is an issue that is continuing the war here in Afghanistan.

And when you talk to the Afghan people, they're afraid to say anything about exactly what's going on until you talk to them after an attack, after a suicide attack, after a car bomb, after they have lost a loved one.

And they will tell me, as I -- they have told me time and time again, that they know who is behind it, that they know that their country is still a battleground for different ideologies. And they actually continuously point the finger at Pakistan.

But it's also too simple to say that it's just Pakistan. Many people time and time again will tell you that, in Afghanistan right now, it's the greater game. It is many hands that are playing a role in the continuous war, whether it be the West, whether it be neighboring countries, whether it be Islamic fundamentalists.

HILL: I only...

ABAWI: Erica.

HILL: Thanks, Atia.

I only have time for a quick yes or no, Fareed. But it is possible for the U.S., heading forward, to maintain a strong relationship with both India and Pakistan, given all of these issues?

ZAKARIA: Sure. The United States has done it in the past. We give the Pakistani military a lot of money. I just think we should be asking more from it.

HILL: And we will see if -- if they follow that.

Fareed Zakaria, Atia Abawi, Michael Ware, appreciate the time from all of you tonight. Thank you.


HILL: And just a quick reminder for you: You can see that HBO documentary, "Terror in Mumbai." That airs tomorrow at noon Eastern time.

There is much more ahead tonight on 360, including a novel way of financing health care reform. It's being called the "Botax," a catchy name, taxing cosmetic surgery to help the uninsured get medical care. But there is a bit of wrinkle in the plan. And you might be surprised to see just how it looks when we take the bandages off. We're "Keeping Them Honest."

Also, preparing for the big night.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: We describe it, it's sort of like a swan, where we're -- we're kind of calm and serene above water, but we're paddling like mad, going crazy underneath, trying to look smooth.


HILL: So, did everything look and go smoothly? We will take you inside tonight's state dinner for the glamour, the glitz, and, yes, there were a couple of glitches.


HILL: Much to come here on 360, including we're going to bring you some of the live entertainment from the first official state dinner happening tonight at the White House. We're waiting -- we're getting word that we're going to be hearing from the National Symphony Orchestra, which is under the director of the principal pops conductor, Marvin Hamlisch, who has won just about every award there is when it comes to music, written a number of musical scores, including "The Way We Were."

So, that is just ahead. We're waiting on that live signal to pop up.

And while we do, we want to let you know what else is ahead in the program: new information tonight about Michael Jackson's children and what their lives are like without their famous father.

First, though, Randi Kaye joins us with a 360 news and business bulletin, catching us up on some of those other stories.

Hi, Randi.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Erica, an Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood may pursue an insanity defense at his military trial. Major Nidal Hasan's attorney told the Associated Press that the court must consider his client's mental status because the allegations against Hasan contradict his lifestyle and his military career.

Hasan is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder.

A 360 follow now: Kentucky state police say a U.S. census worker who was found hanging from a tree with the word "fed" scrawled across his chest committed suicide and staged his death to look like a homicide. Police also say the worker recently took out two life insurance policies that would not pay out for suicide.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group is out with its 24th annual "Trouble in Toyland" report. It targeted 16 toys in three categories, including a dangerously loud triceratops from Playskool and the Elmo lunch bag from Fast Forward New York. You can find a complete list on our Web site,

And according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, nearly one in seven parents with grown children say they had a so-called boomerang kid move back home in the past year. Many are returning to their parents' empty nest because of tight finances, of course, or as they pursue an advanced degree.

HILL: Did you go back after college for a little bit?

KAYE: I did.


HILL: Me, too.

KAYE: Until they kicked me out.


HILL: Yes.


HILL: My mother loved me, but she said it was time to go.


KAYE: You bet.

HILL: Time now for our "Beat 360" winners, our daily challenge, of course, to viewers, a chance to show up our staffers by coming up with a better caption for the photo we post on our blog every day. Here is tonight's snap. There you go: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Indian ambassador to the United States during a state arrival hosted by President Obama for India's prime minister.

Our staff winner tonight, Jill. Her caption: "I'm begging, don't make me take off this coat. The sari you bought me is two sizes too small."


HILL: Pretty mildly uncomfortable.

Our viewer winner tonight, Deb from Portland. Her caption: "You're supposed to be concentrating on third-party mediation, not meditation."

KAYE: I like that one.

HILL: Yes, very clever.

KAYE: So clever.

HILL: Your "Beat 360" T-shirt is on the way. We don't think it's going to be two sizes too small. You should be fine.

The entertainment at tonight's state dinner includes performers from India and the United States. Some of the artists on the list, how about Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, A.R. Rahman , an Indian composer, musician and singer who, if you're familiar at all with that hit movie "Slumdog Millionaire," you may know he wrote the score, also won a few awards for it.

And the National Symphony Orchestra, with Marvin Hamlisch as the director. In fact, this is part of their performance now. This is "Summon the Heroes." Take a listen.


HILL: Looks like we may have lost the picture, but, luckily, the -- the music kept coming for a minute. Again, that was the National Symphony Orchestra. Also slated to be performing this evening, the president's own United States Marine Band -- so, clearly, a festive evening on the South Lawn of the White House. We will have much more from inside the state dinner coming up a bit later in the program.

Also ahead, it is being billed as a way to pay for health care reform. It's being called the Botax. But should profits from plastic surgery be used to cover the health care reform plan? And would it even work? We're "Keeping Them Honest."

Also tonight, a shift to the right.


PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The Democratic Party has a wide diversity of opinion, like the Republican Party used to. This is a different Republican Party now. It's all about purity. It's all about rigidity.


HILL: Possible new rules could drastically reshape the Republican Party. We're going to talk about it with Paul Begala. We're also bringing in Mary Matalin. That's ahead on 360, the "Raw Politics."


HILL: With a cost of about $850 billion, lawmakers pushing for health care reform are searching for ways to pay for the plan, one possibility, take a cut from the millions of cosmetic procedures performed in the U.S. each year.

And the idea certainly has its followers. It also has a very catchy new name, the Botax. But can health care financing really be found in a nip and tuck?

Randi Kaye is looking at the record and also "Keeping Them Honest" -- Randi.

KAYE: Erica, tucked away near the very end of the Senate health care bill, on page 2,045, we found the proposal to tax elective cosmetic medical procedures.

Critics call it the Botax, as you said. Now, in simple terms, it's a tax on any cosmetic surgery or procedure that is not medically necessary. If the Senate bill passes, cosmetic surgery patients would be required to pay a 5 percent tax. And we're not just talking about taxes on breast implants and tummy tucks here. Patients would even be taxed on chemical peels, even teeth whitening. Yes, that's true.

Something like breast reconstructive surgery following breast cancer would not be taxed, because that is medically necessary. But, for example, take a look here behind me. If the patient gets Botox for $400, they're going to be taxed $20 right there.

Next, if you take a look at the tummy tuck, if you pay $5,000 for a tummy tuck, the patient will pay $250 in an added tax. And for breast implants, a woman who pays $4,000 to have breast implants, she would be taxed $200.

So, also, if the patient fails to pay the taxes, the doctor has to. Also, in case you're wondering, we checked, and that tax is not a write-off.

HILL: It is such a -- it is such a wide range there. I didn't realize that teeth whitening was included.

So, Randi, who is this going to affect mostly?

HILL: Women, women, women. The American society of Plastic Surgeons, which is against the tax, said 86 percent of cosmetic surgery patients are women. And this may really surprise you. These women aren't the wealthy country club-goers. In fact, they earn between $30,000 and $60,000 a year. The Society of Plastic Surgeons says the so-called Botax is a tax on the middle class. These really are the women who feel they need this sort of thing to compete effectively in today's job market.

Let's face it. They need to look good. And, yes, their teeth need to be white.


KAYE: So, of course, "Keeping Them Honest," we called Senator Harry Reid's office. And he is the author of the Senate bill under consideration.

His office would not comment on whether or not this is a tax against women, as some critics have said, but told us -- quote -- "This is an idea that's been out for a while. It's a way to get some additional revenue for the health care bill."

One plastic surgeon in New Jersey, Dr. Richard D'Amico, the former president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, told us about 90 percent of his patients are women. He says the proposed tax, quote, "selectively affects working women."

And I should mention, by the way, New Jersey is the only state in the country that already taxes cosmetic procedures which aren't considered medically necessary. In 2004, New Jersey voted to levy a 6 percent tax on them. It's been a total failure in New Jersey, which, of course, raises a lot of questions about whether or not taxing a nip and a tuck, as the Senate is proposing, would actually even help foot the bill for health-care reform.

New Jersey had hoped to raise about $120 million in tax revenue by now but instead has raised a fraction of that, about $50 million. It has been such a flop that legislators voted to repeal the tax three years ago in 2006. But New Jersey's governor actually vetoed that repeal.

HILL: It also makes you wonder, Randi, if senators actually looked at what happened in New Jersey as a bit of a case study and saw how it panned out. What happened to all that business in New Jersey? Did people just say, "All right. Forget it, I'll just stick with the yellow teeth"?

KAYE: Well, no, what exactly. What's happening is patients are crossing state lines to New York or Philadelphia, states nearby to get the procedures done. They are tax free.

But if this does become federal law, they'll be taxed no matter where they go. Because every state will have the tax. So some plastic surgeons in New Jersey say it's had a real impact on their business. Some of them actually, Erica, worry that they're going to have to be shut down.

HILL: But, hey, the Senate says this is a good way to pay for health care.

KAYE: That's what they say.

HILL: Randi Kaye, "Keeping Them Honest," thanks.

You may be wondering what the most popular cosmetic procedure is in the United States. And just why do people actually choose to have these procedures done? You might be surprised when you look at the answers. You can find them all at

And that's where you can also weigh in, of course, on the debate over taxing plastic surgery. You can do it at the live chat now under way on the blog.

Up next, this one will get you talking. A political litmus test? A proposal to have Republican candidates meet a checklist of criteria draws some controversy, and it's also proving to be a little bit of red meat for Democrats.


PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: For example, people even like evolution or gravity or photosynthesis or any of the stuff that Republicans are afraid off, come on over to the Democratic Party.


HILL: You can see Republican strategist Mary Matalin's reaction there. You'll actually hear it coming up ahead. Also, more from Paul Begala.

And the president's first state dinner. The menu, the entertainment and, yes, the insider details ahead.



HILL: In "Raw Politics" tonight, the GOP's purity test. A group of conservative Republican National Committee members is working on a resolution that could radically alter the party's look and its message and also risk to drive out moderates.

The proposal sent out new rules, a checklist really, that candidates must meet in order to secure both support and funding from the GOP.

Now many are expected here: smaller government, a smaller national debt. The checklist also includes opposition to the president's stimulus and health plan, as well as opposition to gun control, cap-and-trade-based energy reform, same-sex marriage, and amnesty for illegal immigrants.

It also mandates support for troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the containment of Iran and North Korea. So what does this list say about the party, and most importantly, perhaps, about its future direction? We're going to talk about that now with Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist Mary Matalin. Both, of course, are CNN political contributors.

Good to have you both with us.

And Mary, I want to start with you, because this is your party here. The draft resolution written, basically, as a tribute to President Reagan. But frankly, even he wouldn't meet all these qualifications. He raised taxes. He grew the deficit. And he really was the big-tent guy who grew the Republican Party.

Is it wise at this point for the RNC to be in the business of potentially excluding people in what seems like a categorical way?

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Not excluding anybody, except Nancy Pelosi Democrats. I applaud these members who have taken the initiative to come up with these ten points, all of which -- and I defy my friend Paul to find me any blue dog Democrat that wouldn't agree with at least eight out of ten of these mainstream principles.

And if you look at your own -- our own CNN polls, all of these issues and these policies are received majority mainstream support. So there's not -- they're not going to move out any moderates. It's going to pull back in people who left the party because we became liberal light.

HILL: But one thing that's really interesting when you read this is that the resolution specifically mentions welcoming people with diverse views here. But then it outlines, as you said, very conservative positions. Maybe not unexpected. But is that really ushering in diversity?

MATALIN: I -- I don't know what -- give me an example, Erica. Every blue dog Democrat that was elected -- Rahm Emanuel, good for him, he went in and out '06 and '08 and he specifically recruited Democrats that ran on these principles. Of course, we weren't contesting government-run health care or government-run energy policy, which the blue dogs are now opposing.

HILL: But when it comes to...

MATALIN: These are not out of the mainstream.

HILL: So -- and in terms of diversity, there's no concern that they're keeping the diversity out?

MATALIN: What they're saying, what they're suggesting is you can run. If you want to run against all of these, you can certainly run as a Republican. What you cannot do is expect to be funded by the Republican Party.

As somebody who spent -- started out in the basement at the Republican National Committee, I saw those dollars, $5, $3. People aren't sending their money for us to support candidates who behave like Nancy Pelosi.

HILL: Well, which is a fairly far cry to the left. Not exactly the moderates there's been a lot of people talking about.

But Paul, want to bring you in here to be fair. Democrats not exactly speaking with one voice right now. The anti-war wing of the party is upset about the expected troop surge in Afghanistan. Pro- choice Democrats, human over health-care reform, gay rights supporters. We've heard for months now we feel let down by the president on a number of issues. Could this be maybe a good idea for the Democratic Party?

BEGALA: Well, I think -- I think Mary is making my case better than I could for myself.

The Democratic Party has a wide diversity of opinion, like the Republican Party used to. You know, these things wax and wane over history. And there was a time, you know, when I was a kid, Ronald Reagan was the president. He was reaching out to Reagan Democrats all the time. He was kicking our butt up and down the country.

This is a bid for the Republican Party now. It's all about purity. It's all about rigidity. Mary makes the point that Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, recruited lots of conservative Democrats. Yes, that's the point. See, Democrats have a big tent now. Some Democrats, and I've worked for some of them, are pro-life. Most Democrats are pro-choice. But the pro-life wing of the party is still part of the Democratic Party.

The Republicans are all about driving people out right now. And I think it's a great idea. So if you're, for example, if you believe in, like, evolution or gravity or photosynthesis or any of the stuff that Republicans are afraid of, come on over to the Democratic Party. You know, we're the party right now of the mainstream. Wasn't always the case. But God bless the Republicans. They seem to have ceded the center of the national debate to the Democratic Party.

HILL: Mary, are you seeing the center? Which as we know, moderate independents are increasingly important in every election. And 2010, not that far away.

MATALIN: I -- I'm going to ask again. I want Paul to tell me who of the 49 blue dog Democrats which constitute three quarters of what constitutes the majority of the party, who -- which blue dog Democrat would be against three of these things? I can't think of anyone in any district.

And the country is 2 to 1 conservative. And the -- it's not -- people don't identify themselves, people who do identify themselves as Republicans and Democrats are in the minority. Who identifies themselves as independents are 2 to 1 conservative. And they're increasingly opposed to these big government programs that President Obama has ushered in. And it's hurting the party.

The generic ballot for Republicans, when they were running as liberal lights, was minus seven. Now it's plus four. That's a swing of 11 points on the "would you vote for a Republican or a Democrat in your district?" So we need to get back to what -- how we got off track in the first place when we were in the majority.

HILL: And we also need to wrap this up or I'm in big trouble. So Paul, I'll let you have the last 30 seconds.

BEGALA: I'm just amused that Mary is not saying that -- I guess George Bush and John McCain, men she supported, were somehow liberal light.

I think this is great. I think the Republicans should go back to the Dark Ages. And don't stop there. Go all the way to the Stone Age. This is what I want as a Democrat. I couldn't be happier. It's my Thanksgiving gift from the RNC. And I want to thank the Republicans for trying to keep the Democrats in the center.

HILL: Well, I want to thank the both of you for coming in today. Paula Begala, Mary Matalin.

MATALIN: Happy Thanksgiving.

HILL: Happy Thanksgiving to you both.


HILL: An update now on a program designed to help your children, one that crosses administrations. It crosses party lines, No Child Left Behind. You've heard so much about it over the last few years.

Well, now a new federal study finds nearly a third of states have lowered their academic proficiency standards in recent years. Why? Well, it's a step that can actually help schools stay ahead of sanctions under that program.

Tomorrow on 360, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks to Anderson about why he wants to reform No Child Left Behind and to hold states and teachers accountable for these lowered standards.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you believe there's an education crisis in this country?

ARNE DUNCAN, SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: There absolutely is, and it's an interesting time for the country, both economic and educational crisis. We have a dropout rate as a nation that approaches 30 percent. That's 1.2 million students each year going onto the street. And as you know so well, those children are basically condemned to poverty and social failure. It's an unacceptable rate.


HILL: More from Secretary Duncan and also a closer look at the crisis in our education system, a crisis which affects not only the children but also this country's economy. That's coming up tomorrow on 360.

But still to come tonight on the program, the president and first lady hosting their first state dinner at the White House. And we have all the details for you, from the menu to the guest list to the toast.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To the future that beckons all of us. Let us answer it call, and let our two great nations realize all the triumphs and achievement that await us. Cheers.


HILL: Also ahead, new information about Michael Jackson's children and their plans for Thanksgiving.


HILL: Tonight the Obamas are hosting their first state dinner. And it's no small fest. More than 300 guests, including politicians, prominent Indian-Americans and a few Hollywood A-listers.

The real stars of the night, though, are, of course, the president, first lady Michelle Obama and the prime minister and first lady of India. The guest of honor and vegetarians, and that was taken into account when putting together tonight's lavish menu.

Also, the guests are dining inside a tent on the South Lawn because frankly, there are just too many to fit inside the state dining room. Now, when asked about the preparations earlier today, the first lady had this to say.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: We describe it as sort of like a swan where we're kind of calm and serene above water, but we're paddling like mad going crazy underneath, trying to look smooth.


HILL: So how did it turn out? All smooth? Tom Foreman takes us up close.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The first couple entered with the prime minister of India and his wife. The president in a straight black tux, the first lady in a champagne gown, the creation of Indian born designer Kahn. She even had traditional Indian bracelets on her arm.

But their guest list was pretty dazzling, too. From the world of showbiz directors M. Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg were on hand. So were actors Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood. From the news media, Katie Couric, Brian Williams, Robin Roberts, and CNN's own Fareed Zakaria and Sanjay Gupta, too. And from politics, General Colin Powell, New York mayor: Michael Bloomberg. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a cast of other big players, at least one of whom, the energy secretary, went the wrong way.

In the tent on the South Lawn, all seemed to go right. The prime minister was the guest of honor. But all the focus was on the commander in chief.

OBAMA: It's been said that the most beautiful things in the universe are the starry heavens above us and the feeling of duty within us. Mr. Prime minister, today we work to fulfill our duty, bring our countries closer together than ever before. Tonight under the stars we celebrate the spirit that will sustain our partnership, the bond of friendship between our people. To the future that beckons all of us.

FOREMAN: The guests dined on eggplant salad, chick peas, okra and prawns with a pumpkin pie tart for dessert. It was all served on china from the Eisenhower, Clinton, and George W. Bush years.


FOREMAN: Jennifer Hudson was on the entertainment program. She told CNN's Suzanne Malveaux she practiced a lot.

JENNIFER HUDSON, SINGER: rehearsed my songs over and over again. I think I picked the perfect gown.


FOREMAN: And we are led to believe, Erica, it was the perfect gown. It fit perfectly and that her performance was magnificent, at least that's what we're led to believe.

HILLS: Led to believe. So Tom, why couldn't we see said dress and, more importantly, the performance?

FOREMAN: Well, a little bone to pick with the White House here, Erica. Look. You can see the video here. We did get two minutes of the national symphony orchestra with Marvin Hamlisch.

HILLS: Which is lovely.

FOREMAN: Which is lovely, but we didn't get. Hudson because they only allowed a couple minutes. Then they shut the cameras s down. Apparently, this whole transparency thing doesn't apply to the parties.

HILL: Interesting.

FOREMAN: I think a lot of us would like to be able to attend.

HILL: I mean, it's the entertainment portion, people. It's not like they're talking policy right there. FOREMAN: There was a big scandal involved.

HILL: I think there is. We're going to have to wait for the photos tomorrow.

Tom Foreman is on the case. That's it. The next time we're getting all the entertainment.

FOREMAN: Yes. Nice party, nonetheless.

HILL: It was. Maybe one day we'll get to go. Tom, thanks.

Up next, he is known as the Angel of Queens, a bus driver by day who dedicates his nights to feeding the hungry. It is, to say the very least, an inspiring story. That's ahead.

And an exclusive interview with Jermaine Jackson and an update on Michael Jackson's kids, how they are coping. That's also to come.


HILL: We are just two nights away from "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute." We want to introduce you to one of the remarkable people being honored Thanksgiving night.

His name is Jorge Jiminez. He's a bus driver, a school bus driver by day. But by night, he feeds as many as 140 people on the street corner in Queens, New York. How he does it and why he does it, two of the reasons he is one of CNN's top ten heroes this year. And it's also why, to those he helps, he's known as the Angel of Queens.


JORGE JIMINEZ, FEEDS HOMELESS: I'm a school bus driver.

One day, I see these guys standing in the street. I saw them and say why they here? And I stopped and ask them. They said they're day laborers. They spend the whole day on the corner, hoping to get a job. He said if we have a job, we have money to eat. If not, we don't eat nothing today.

So I say OK, wait for me tomorrow. I'm going to bring you something to eat.

My name is Jorge Jiminez and I cook meals for the hungry, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I get up at, like, 5:15 in the morning. I get into my bus around 6:30. I finish my work around 5. Back home around 6. And I start my second job.

This is a family affair. In the beginning, a friend of mine, he donated a lot of bread. And then later, I got food donations. The food started coming in little by little. And then the house turned into a storage. Now I have six refrigerators in my house.

Today, we're going to cook chicken, rice and beans. We're going to parking lot and drive to the corner. In the beginning there were eight guys. Two weeks later, there were 24. Now we have 10, sometimes 120, sometimes 140. We have enough food for everybody.

I have my family, my sister. I have a home, I have a stable job. Whatever I wanted, I have. They are alone. They have nothing. They don't even have a place to stay. They don't have a place to sleep. [

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of people here call him the superman of Roosevelt Avenue. He's the person that sees the emotion and needs of all of us.

JIMINEZ: Thank God these people got something to eat tonight. When you see that smile, you know you're doing something good. Just give them a meal and say, see you tomorrow.


HILL: You'll hear more from Jorge and also see the stories of the nine other remarkable people we're honoring on "CNN Heroes, An All-Star Tribute." Hosted by Anderson Cooper. That is this Thursday night, Thanksgiving at 9 Eastern and Pacific only on CNN.

Want to get you caught up on some of the other important stories we're also covering tonight. Randi Kaye back with a 360 bulletin.

Accepting the seat for a second time, Doug Hoffman, conservative candidate from New York's 23rd congressional district conceded he doesn't have enough votes to beat Democrat Bill Owens. Last week he withdrew his first concession arguing the race was close enough that absentee ballots may change the outcome. Now he says he has no hope of winning. For the first time since the Civil War, a Democrat occupies that seat.

The Jackson family gathered today to celebrate an early Thanksgiving. And they are determined not to let money and fame pull them apart following Michael Jackson's death. That's what Jermaine Jackson told CNN today. He also had this to say about Michael's children.


JERMAINE JACKSON, MICHAEL JACKSON'S BROTHER: The kids are doing great. They're with my kids every day. They're like -- they're best friends. They were best friends before Michael passed. They're doing well. They're getting their lessons done. They have wonderful tutors and programs and they are getting a chance to go out and see and do things and given a chance to travel and stuff. And it's tough because you're like a fish in the eye of the world and everybody is watching, every little thing you do, they're going to create something. What can you do?


KAYE: To South Carolina now. A state panel has begun debating whether Mark Sanford should be impeached. He faces 37 charges he broke state ethics laws over the use of airplanes and campaign money. The charges are linked to his extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina.

And in San Fernando, California, a man caught on surveillance video -- get this -- stealing a nun's purse. Police are searching for the suspect who they say approached the nun in a supermarket parking lot, asked her how to get food for his sister's children, then grabbed the nun's purse and fled in a van.

That's beyond low. You know what's going to happen. It's Christmas. You know what he's getting in his stocking.

HILL: A big ole lump of coal.

KAYE: They'll catch him before that.

HILL: But tonight's shot. The gospel according to Timothy Geithner.

Wait a minute.




HILL: I mean who knew the treasury secretary could sing? Maybe that's what's keeping them going these days. We found this clip on Apparently, it's actually the voice of Harry Shearer from "This is Spinal Tap" and, of course, "The Simpsons" having a little fun with Geithner. And, you know, what a way to make a congressional hearing perhaps a little more entertaining. There you go.

You can give us your "Shot" suggestions at or your own on the congressional hearing.

Just ahead, serious stuff at the top of the hour. President Obama's new commitment to finishing the job in Afghanistan.